Adding New Ideas vs. Knowing When to Streamline
I received an awesome question post in my forum last week, and I thought I'd answer it today. :)
I thought my first novel was done except for proofreading, after being through many CPs and two passes with a professional editor I hired. Now that I’m about 25% into its sequel, I keep discovering new things about my characters that I’d like to go back and put in the first one as a connecting detail or foreshadowing. This is for characters, but for places too, because my trilogy is fantasy and I get more awesome ideas about the various cultures and places as I write more. The problem is when can I “stop” world building? Should I write and edit the entire trilogy before self publishing the first one or just publish the first one now because it’s ready. When I’m working on the other two, I’ll just have to delete some of my new ideas I guess? Because the first one will already be out in the world, unchangeable. How do you deal with this when you have a traditional contract for only one book, not knowing if your editor will want to buy or publish the rest of the series as you envision it?
Okay, let's break this down into two separate questions.
When to Stop Adding Ideas
It's funny that this question—When can I stop world-building?—came RIGHT at a time when I'm struggling with a similar issue. I have so many new ideas! I want to squeeze them all in HERE and NOW and into THIS WORLD... Well, there is a breaking point and there is such a thing as too much. And in all honesty, a tight book that gets complex without getting unwieldy and that wraps up in a great big AHA! of meeting threads—those are the books that readers love most. (An excellent example is the Harry Potter series: lots of threads and characters and world details, but it never bogs down the reader. Best of all, everything comes together for a truly spectacular ending.) So how do you know if you're only complicating things by adding more?
For world-building: If you have extraneous details that don't actually add to the story or need to be there for the plot's sake, then you might want to cut out some histories and details. A few subtle elements can absolutely enhance the story—little details make a world feel real. But if you worry you have too many details or so many settings that the reader is getting whiplash...Well, you might want to take a look at the world-building.
For characters: If you're having a hard time incorporating characters into a scene, then maybe they don't need to be there. I totally made this mistake with Strange & Ever After—I wanted to have Laure join Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters in Marseille and Egypt. But it got so unwieldy! Having to find ways/reasons for every character to speak and act in group scenes? I just kept forgetting characters were even there. Obviously, I solved this problem by leaving Laure in Paris and then trying to keep each scene focused on only a 1-3 characters at a time.
For plot threads: If, at any point, you have to start writing a really complicated, info-dumpy type scenes in order to wrap up and connect all the threads, then you might have too many plots twining through your book. I am SO guilty of this in Strange & Ever After, and I'll talk more about that below. :)
The key is, in my opinion, to getting a streamlined book is to:
Work with what you already have when trying to connect scenes, characters, places, and events. Sometimes little throwaway comments from earlier chapters or books can become AWESOME plot points or props.
If you can't work with what you already have, try to instead to TAKE AWAY. Maybe some detail or thread is actually clogging you up rather than giving you the freedom to move forward. Thought it sometimes requires rewriting, it's often better to simplify than to complicate--unless, of course, the book is already super simple. Then you might want to...
Add in those new ideas and see/feel how it works. If you can tell that it's just opening up too many new story questions or story directions, then maybe you shouldn't add it. But you can always weave it in, try it out for a few chapters, and then decide.
Writing an Entire Series Upfront
Now, onto the other part of this question: If self-publishing, should you write and edit the entire trilogy before publishing the first? If traditional publishing, how do you deal with new ideas and being confined to what's already in the world? Goodness, I can tell you from experience that writing a sequel once the earlier books are published/unchangeable is REALLY HARD. Holy crow, it's hard. You write yourself into unforeseen corners and you can't go back to tweak things in earlier books. Or, you'll have the AWESOME ideas that you just love and that resonate so much with you...but that you can't introduce because they really should have been introduced in the already-on-shelves book 1. Or, if you'll discover in your third book (as I did) that everything you'd kinda-sorta thought would tie up DOESN'T—at least not in a way that resonates with you. Now you're stuck adding all sorts of little details and backstories that you really wish you'd dropped into earlier books. For example, in Strange & Ever After, I introduce the idea of gods and other creatures from the spirit realm. I REALLY wish I could go back to Something Strange & Deadly and weave in just a few hints that gods are coming up...But alas, the first books were already published. So if you can (and if you intend to definitely self-publish the whole trilogy), I actually think you can benefit from writing all the books at once. Not only does this allow you to really build your story and streamline it, but it also allows you to publish the entire series at once (which works very well in the self-publishing world). However, if you ARE confined to writing only one book at a time, I urge you to follow the steps I list above: work with what you already have, take away aspects, or add new ideas with heaps of caution. Will you be stuck scratching your head and screaming at the already-in-stores book for not being changeable? Probably, but that doesn't mean writing sequels after earlier books are finished is impossible. (And perhaps my post on planning a series will help!)